It is almost five months since Sebastian Vettel won a Grand Prix but he put that right under the spotlights of the night race at Singapore. The fact that he did it at the expense of Lewis Hamilton – who retired from the lead with transmission trouble – says everything about the continuing roller-coaster ride of the 2012 season as this much-needed victory keeps Vettel in the championship frame despite relatively few visits to the podium in the 13 races so far.
Vettel moves to second place in a title chase that continues to be led by Fernando Alonso. But you could see from Alonso’s preoccupied look as he stood on the third step of the podium that the Ferrari is not a championship-winning car and he is ahead of the game thanks to a mixture of fine driving, consistency (eight podiums) and the misfortune of others.
The latter touches on an increasingly strange phenomenon as the season reaches two-thirds distance. After enjoying remarkable reliability, the leading F1 teams – well, Red Bull and McLaren – have hit a bad batch. Two weeks ago, Vettel had an alternator problem and joined Jenson Button as a leading retirement at Monza. In Singapore, it came good for these two as Button finished second behind Vettel and, this time, it was Monza winner Hamilton who failed to reach the finish.
Immediately after the race, McLaren did not know what had caused Hamilton’s transmission to fail as he lost third gear and then had a box of neutrals halfway round the 23rd lap. Martin Whitmarsh discounted the failure as being a legacy of Hamilton brushing the ever-present concrete wall during qualifying. “We checked the car and the telemetry and there was nothing to indicate a problem,” said the McLaren team principal. Had it been necessary to change the gearbox, a five-place grid penalty would have cost Hamilton the advantage of pole position on a track where overtaking is difficult.
If you wanted proof of that, it was only necessary to listen to Kimi Raikkonen (sixth for Lotus) complaining it had been a boring race because it was impossible to get ahead of the car in front. Similarly, the aggressive efforts of Felipe Massa on a storming drive from the back of the field to an eventual eighth place had resulted in some very untidy moments, one of which saw Massa and Bruno Senna touch in an unlikely overtaking place.
Senna, in the points at that stage, eventually lost power and stopped on the final lap to end a deeply disappointing day for Williams. Pastor Maldonado, having made dramatic improvements to his Williams during practice, came from nowhere to take a front row grid position alongside Hamilton. Even allowing for an understeer moment at the first corner dropping Maldonado to fourth, he was well-placed for points when the team advised him to stop because of a hydraulics problem. Heat and humidity extracted the usual toll on machinery and drivers alike.
Michael Schumacher caused the second of two Safety Car periods when he misjudged his braking and slammed into the back of Jean-Eric Vergne’s tenth-place Toro Rosso, Schumacher receiving a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Japan.
The retirements, mechanical or otherwise, gave Timo Glock a golden opportunity to give a delighted Marussia team 12th place and move them ahead of Caterham and HRT in the so-called B Division at the back of the field. Glock’s story summed up a race of survival lasting two hours. “I touched a wall and I thought it was all over,” said Glock. “The back of the car was slightly out after that but I just kept pushing. I could hardly complete the last lap.”
No such problems for Vettel, who was cleared of suspected erratic driving after Button narrowly missed the back of the Red Bull when Vettel slowed dramatically as they prepared for the restart after a Safety Car period. As Vettel completed his slowing down lap, the radio message for team chief Christian Horner summed up the significance of this win. “You beauty, Sebastian! Well done! We’re back in the championship.” He didn’t dare add: “For now, at least.”
1. Fernando Alonso – 194 points
2. Sebastian Vettel – 165
3. Kimi Raikkonen – 149
4. Lewis Hamilton – 142
5. Mark Webber – 132
6. Jenson Button – 119
7. Nico Rosberg – 93
8. Romain Grosjean – 82
1. Red Bull-Renault – 297 points
2. McLaren Mercedes – 261
3. Ferrari – 245
4. Lotus-Renault – 231
5. Mercedes – 136
6. Sauber-Ferrari – 101
7. Force India-Mercedes – 75
8. Williams-Renault – 54